The Internet of Things for Digitalized Buildings

The eyes and ears of a building—these are electronic sensors that already enable classic building automation systems (BMS) to control lighting, shading and room climate for instance. The deep networking ability of cloud-based Internet of Things (IoT) platforms and self-powered, maintenance-free sensors that can flexibly be placed everywhere in a facility, even on furniture, provide real-time insight into a building’s condition and technical health. This facilitates more efficient or even entirely new services through networking with other disciplines, such as multimedia, alarm systems, elevators and the parking area belonging to the building, to mention only a few. Each of these disciplines is getting smarter all the time and thus provides an entirely new dimension in digitalized services and business models. By Andreas Schneider, CEO and Co-Founder of EnOcean.

Smart light management

In addition to HVAC and shading, lighting is an important part of classic building automation. Lighting solutions are getting smarter, and the light adjusts, for example, to the conditions within the home, office, shopping center or on the street—coordinated with daylight or occupancy. Dynamic lighting control and the adaptation of light to human biorhythms are also becoming increasingly more important. Active light regulation ensures that employees are active and motivated throughout the workday.

The introduction of LED technology has brought about an enormous transformation in the area of lighting. By 2027, widespread use of LEDs could save about 348 TWh of electricity in the United States alone. This is the equivalent annual electrical output of 44 large electric power plants (1,000 megawatts each), and a total savings of more than 30 billion US Dollars at today’s electricity prices. (Source: US Department of Energy –

Fundamental changes in electronics had to be developed to be able to efficiently control and regulate the new lamps. Occupancy sensors, for example, make it possible to automatically turn off lamps that are not needed. This is particularly sensible in large office environments, in which not all areas are occupied all the time. Light sensors can adapt the brightness of indoor lighting to the amount of available ambient light (“daylight connection“). This is especially beneficial for buildings with large glass fronts where a lot of ambient light is available. Defining maximum brightness settings for dimmable lights (“task tuning“) avoids too brightly lit areas and optimizes the light level for individual areas.

Other sensors can also provide real-time insight into the building’s condition and technical health. Current sensors measure energy consumption and energy savings per luminaire, per floor and for the entire building. Motion sensors collect occupancy data and thus provide information on the use of office rooms, which helps optimize economical use. With an IoT infrastructure, the data collected by sensors can provide insight into the operating hours and usage history of lighting systems, for example, in order to improve the maintenance process. Maintenance history shows events within the system, such as current peaks, voltage drops, devices that are offline and sporadic problems.

Important note: this is not only possible for new built facilities but for retrofits in existing buildings in particular. The Ivy League University in New York, consisting of 360 buildings and hundreds of thousands of lighting fixtures, is a good example of how an existing building can change its system to an IoT-enabled lighting control.

Connected disciplines

The IoT’s enormous potential lies in its interdisciplinary use of sensors. For example, a motion sensor can control the lights, control the room climate according to demand in order to save energy and also ensure security within the building. The same is true of window contacts. The optimum approach is to combine the motion sensor with window contacts, which protect against intruders and also prevent false alarms due to open windows. If windows are opened, or if the room is unoccupied, the heat is turned down and the overall system is optimized in combination with algorithms that learn and suitably map user behavior. In connection with weather data on the Internet, a warning of imminent rain can be given in good time when windows are open.

Additional intelligence can also be added—such as light quality (e.g., light intensity, color mixture), temperature, moisture or air quality. All this data can be collected centrally in the system, processed in combination with other environmental data available on the Internet and distributed to other networked devices and disciplines within the building.

Data for new services

Digitalization with the aid of distributed sensors and a cloud-based infrastructure enables facility managers to develop and automate new services. This includes, for example, room use management. Presence sensors can detect at all times how many people use a conference room and how often or when the cafeteria is especially crowded. Room occupancy and thus the use of cost-intensive resources, such as heating, air-conditioning and lights as well as staff and inventory, can be optimized based on usage data.

Detailed usage patterns of the building, staff and inventory can be prepared with the aid of sensor data collected by additional sensors such as door contacts, activity meters in electronic devices, etc. These patterns supply real-time information about the actual demand and allow appropriate measures to be taken. An IoT gateway interconnects the sensors and actuators over the Internet with cloud-based platforms such as IBM Watson, Amazon Echo, Microsoft Azure, Apple HomeKit, Google Home and Crestron to make services more efficient, energy-saving and dependent on the situation. Another example is the usage-dependent maintenance and cleaning of sanitary facilities in office buildings. Sensors supply the necessary data, such as how often the rest rooms are used or whether the toilet paper, towel and soap dispensers are running low on stock. Facility managers can use this data to organize their staff according to current requirements and always restock needed materials on time. This not only lowers costs but also increases user satisfaction.

A comfortable environment

Greater user satisfaction also makes companies more attractive as landlords of office space. A comfortable atmosphere at the office has been proven to improve work productivity and to promote employee loyalty. Integrated sensors in office furniture make it possible to design the furnishings colorfully and individually according to requirements and simultaneously equip the offices, for example, with state-of-the-art multimedia and smart light and heating control. Because of hidden sensors, employees are unaware of the IoT technology and notice primarily the comfort factor.

The list of optimized processes in a digitalized building is practically endless. For example, it can include sensors that sound the alarm if a water mains ruptures or in the event of a fire or break-in and thus prevent millions in insurance losses.

The self-powered Internet of Things

Collecting reliable sensor data and combining the data properly links the physical world with the digital one, and the networked system can respond in a far more optimized way to changing demands or even create entirely new building services. However, more than 90% of buildings are existing real estate. Wireless solutions must therefore be considered for adding a comprehensive digital infrastructure. This is the only way to establish the right cost-benefit ratio.

In the IoT with its thousands of data points, these sensors need to be self-powered. Using their surrounding environment as energy source the devices work without batteries. Pressing a switch button for example provides enough kinetic energy to power a wireless signal. Solar-powered sensors harvest energy from typical indoor illumination thanks to highly efficient electronics and store the harvested energy to remain active for several days even in complete darkness. Self-powered switches and sensors use international open standards for wireless communication. This includes the EnOcean radio standard (ISO/IEC 14543-3-1X) by the EnOcean Alliance which is optimized and very well established in building automation. It provides easy commissioning and interoperable operation of devices from different vendors. Self-powered switches and sensor modules also talk native Bluetooth® and Zigbee to connect to existing infrastructure provided by lighting companies.

Due to their specific characteristics of being wireless and batteryless, self-powered devices can be placed freely and flexibly and added to at any time — above all, without requiring any maintenance. Batteries have served out their purpose in the IoT as a source of energy for sensors. Once the first battery has failed within the service life, the building operator will have to replace all batteries as a precaution. This requires an incalculable amount of labor and correspondingly high costs that are not incurred with self-powered wireless components. The self-powered IoT forms the basis of innovative buildings that sustainably meet individual needs now and in the future through digitalized new services for the users and managers of the rooms that we occupy every day.